Interview: Winifred Phillips, Assassin’s Creed III Liberation Composer
You may not have heard the name Winifred Phillips, but if you played Assassin’s Creed III Liberation, a PlayStation Vita exclusive that was released in October, you’ve certainly heard her work. She’s the composer of the score for Liberation, and in November she won the Hollywood Music in Media award for the music she wrote for the game. In addition to Liberation, Phillips has created music for plenty of other games, including LittleBigPlanet on the Vita and God of War on the PS2, to name but a few.
Phillips was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about how she got involved in the project, and the way she approached writing music to accompany one of the most interesting and innovative games to come out this year. Not only that, but she provided some insights into her experience in the game industry. Read on…
Machinima: How did you get involved with the project to score Liberation?
Winifred Phillips: Ubisoft invited me to participate in a competitive audition for the project. I’d had a good relationship with Ubisoft for a number of years, but before Assassin’s Creed III Liberation, a project hadn’t come along where we could work together. Ubisoft asked me to submit some music I’d written for previous projects, just as a demonstration of my skills. I was hired based on that.
M: What led to your involvement in creating scores for video games in the first place? Have you always been a gamer? If not, have you become more interested in the medium as a form of recreation since starting to work in the field? If so, what are some of your favorite games—besides Liberation, of course.
WP: I’ve been a gamer for a long time, ever since I got hooked by playing games like Final Fantasy VII and Tomb Raider. I like exploring big, expansive worlds, so I definitely gravitate to games like those in the Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls series. I also enjoy compelling stories like the ones in the Uncharted games. The Portal and LittleBigPlanet series are driven by their humorous characters and situations, and that’s a big draw for me, too. I like to be pretty open-minded about new games – there are so many new game mechanics being developed. For instance, games built around music and rhythm can be a lot of fun (Sound Shapes, Patapon, Lumines).
M: What kind of research did you put into the time period and location when composing the score? Are there influences from other sources that might not be as apparent?
WP: My focus for Assassin’s Creed III Liberation centered on musical styles and instruments, because I knew that was going to be a challenge. The story of Aveline de Grandpré is about a person who has incorporated drastically different cultures into her daily life. She’s comfortably at home in the affluent society of her father. She’s been educated in the manner of an aristocratic French woman. She knows all the refined mannerisms, and she’s mastered all the skills that are expected of a lady. At the same time, she’s perfectly at home among the slaves, and can quickly be accepted as a member of that class because of her appearance. As a result, she can blend in with any society, whether in the shanty towns on the bayou, mingling with smugglers and underworld types on the docks, or attending fancy balls with the New Orleans elite. I knew that the music couldn’t simply show the contrast between these cultures – it had to combine them, just as Aveline was able to combine these influences into her life and live comfortably in many worlds. I looked at ways in which the strings, harpsichords, woodwinds and brass of the Baroque chamber orchestra could complement the shakers, udus, kalimbas, djembes and bamboo flutes of African music. I also explored other folk-music styles and instruments, seeking to find combinations that could show Aveline’s ability to meld with any type of society that New Orleans had to offer.
M: How many other musicians did you work with in the soundtrack’s creation? Did you merely score and compose, or did you sit to play and record the music yourself? Describe the process of how the music went from sheet to sound, if you could.
WP: I’ve always been pretty hands-on with all my projects, and that includes Assassin’s Creed III Liberation. While the score incorporates many performances by skilled musicians, including authentic African tribal drummers, vocalists and percussionists, I enjoyed contributing my own keyboard and vocal skills to the recordings. Typically, I do all the composition and recording work in my production studio, Generations Productions. I work with award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron, who oversees the entire process from composition to final recording. She ensures that the quality of every aspect of the musical score is top-notch.
M: What’s your favorite track from the score, and why? What was the most challenging track you worked on?
WP: The favorite track was also the most challenging track to write. The Main Theme was one of the first tracks I worked on, and it established the overall musical style for the game. It was the first track in which I tried to combine the European and African musical influences in a way that would reflect Aveline’s personality. Since it would set the tone for the rest of the score, I knew it was crucial that I compose the track very carefully. Because of the importance of the track, I’m especially pleased with the way it came out – I think it communicates Aveline’s character and sets a tone for the rest of the game’s music.
M: The video game industry in America is notoriously geared towards males in general, with a new, vocal contingent of female gamers beginning to emerge. Did you feel any sort of connection to Aveline as a woman working in a male-focused field, working on a game with a female protagonist?
WP: I’ve always found women video game protagonists to be particularly compelling. Lara Croft, Joanna Dark, Chell, Samus Aran, and now Aveline de Grandpré have all been really inspiring to me. I think that everyone who plays video games likes to imagine themselves as the leading character of the story, so I always get a big kick out of playing a game that stars a fierce heroine. As far as the game industry is concerned, I think things are rapidly changing as the community of video gamers becomes larger and more diverse. I think Assassin’s Creed III Liberation is a great example of this. It was exciting to create music for a game that is as ambitious and forward-thinking as Assassin’s Creed III Liberation!
M: Obviously winning the Hollywood Music in Media Award must be pretty fantastic. How did you feel about the final product when the score for the game was completed? Were you surprised with your nomination and subsequent award, or did you know that Liberation’s score was something special?
WP: I was thrilled to have been nominated, and winning the award was a wonderful affirmation of my work. I think every member of a game development team wants to contribute something meaningful. As the composer, I wanted to help the development team realize their vision. They created a fascinating game world to explore, and an exciting main character for the player to control. I wanted to enhance the experience of exploring that world and controlling that character, and I think that the music accomplishes that. I’m tremendously gratified that so many game critics have enjoyed the music, and that the Assassin’s Creed fan base has embraced it. I knew the responsibility involved in contributing music to such a beloved franchise, and I’m very happy that gamers have appreciated my contribution. That’s the most special recognition I can receive, as a composer for games.